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Motor City Elegy

My father came to Detroit when he was 12 because his parents couldn’t feed him. It was the middle of the Depression, but there were jobs in Detroit—more than in rural Quebec, anyway—so he lived with an uncle who had one. When the war came he was drafted and made an intelligence officer: Since he spoke French, the Army reasoned, he could learn German as well.

Detroit had a good war, too, churning out B-24 bombers and Sherman tanks and hundreds of thousands of the trucks that ferried Allied soldiers into Germany. When it was over, my father came home to a city that was strong and prosperous. Migrants poured in, houses went up, and the auto plants were always hiring at good union wages. People who remember those days say that, back then, if you couldn’t get a job in Detroit, you couldn’t get one anywhere.

Times have changed. Germany and Japan rebuilt the cities that Detroit’s war industries demolished; today it’s Detroit that lies in ruins. Among major American cities, only New Orleans presents a tableau of devastation to rival the Motor City. Its empty, crumbling buildings have made it an emblem of urban apocalypse. Its population today numbers barely 900,000, down from a 1950 peak of 1.85 million, and its mighty industrial economy has shriveled. Once toasted by everyone from Lenin to Noel Coward as a symbol of dynamic modernity, the city is now a byword for decrepitude and obsolescence.

The current recession has added lurid new statistics to the long saga of Detroit’s decline. Last May, when I visited the city, the unemployment rate was 23 percent and the average home price had fallen below $12,000, less than the price of a decent used Chevy. Starved of tax revenue, the city government was running a $300 million deficit it couldn’t close and flirting with receivership. A dip in the city’s notorious crime rate proved a mirage when, in June, the press accused the undermanned and demoralized police department of fudging homicide statistics and, in many cases, simply not responding when victims called. (That was not entirely the fault of the police, the Free Press noted: Some 911 calls don’t go through because copper thieves have stolen the telephone lines.)

The recession has deflated a modest downtown building boom, and with it hopes for the city’s revival. Projects have stalled, with idled backhoes frozen in mid-scoop. Rather than revitalizing the anemic economy, the three enormous new casinos that were to be the capstone of downtown redevelopment have had a hard time just vampirizing it profitably. The Greektown Casino, glitzy anchor of downtown’s tiny nightlife enclave, sought Chapter 11 protection in 2008, and my tour of its half-empty acres of slots made it all too plausible that the house could actually lose in Detroit. The most popular attraction was a Chick-Tac-Dough promotion in which contestants played tic-tac-toe against a chicken to win $100 worth of gambling credit. When I came by, the line was 50 deep because the chicken, its operant conditioning having mysteriously lapsed, had stopped pecking at its video screen and was sitting huddled in a corner of its cage.

Detroit, the city where the working class once stood up to claim its slice of the pie, would be glaringly out of place.

Downtown’s signature abandoned skyscrapers show that the recent prosperity was more veneer than substance. Many of them are distinguished landmarks, their exteriors spruced up for the 2006 Super Bowl makeover: the elegant Lafayette tower, its boarded windows painted with happy sunbeam motifs; the massive Whitney Building, empty behind a Potemkin façade of faux storefront displays designed by students. (“Ever since I was little, I have dreamed of helping revitalize Detroit,” Katie B. wrote on the signature card for her window treatment, a cardboard skyline beneath gauze clouds.) Over-engineered with strong steel skeletons, these buildings aren’t crumbling—which makes their abandonment more unsettling a testament to the strange valuelessness, despite an obvious use-value, of the city as a whole.

Out past the ring of freeways encircling downtown, ruination proceeds without disguise or prettification. This is where Detroit’s celebrated urban prairie begins. The city bulldozes thousands of empty structures every year, but it can’t afford to bulldoze them all; the resulting landscape, in many places, is one of wide vistas of grassland dotted with looming hulks. A Web community of photographers and video essayists has sprung up to document these picturesque ruins: the debris-strewn factories, icons of modernist design; the half-demolished carcass of old Tiger Stadium; the 18-story slab of the Michigan Central train station, scene of a climactic battle between monstrous mutating automobiles in the movie Transformers, rearing up like a Monument Valley mesa. The first city of working-class homeownership, Detroit is full of sturdy, spacious houses whose decay offers a cornucopia of haunting images—burnt-out wrecks; stone mansions staring vacantly through busted-in window holes; wood-frames sagging in on themselves, right angles gone oblique. There’s even a subgenre that specializes in photographic studies of suburban ruins: shuttered Seventies strip malls and derelict office parks in the struggling inner-ring suburbs north of Eight Mile Road.

Nowadays Detroit’s ruins may be its biggest claim to fame, even a potential tourist draw. But the fascination they exert goes beyond their lugubrious aesthetics. They are a panorama of industrial civilization’s collapse—one that inspires, depending on your worldview, either mourning or a grim satisfaction.

Detroit was not wrecked by any particular financial crisis, act of God or Republican administration, but by forces so banal and pervasive in American life—racism, corporate profit-seeking, suburbanization—that they can seem as ineluctable as time. Its decline dates to its heyday—to the 1943 riot, sparked when blacks’ efforts to win promotions on the factory floor and move out of Detroit’s overcrowded ghetto were resisted furiously by whites, then the city’s overwhelming majority. Decades of low-intensity race war ensued as black families moving into white neighborhoods were besieged for weeks on end by rock-hurling mobs. The 1967 riot accelerated a general white flight. The apartheid lines stabilized around the city-suburb boundary, and Greater Detroit became the most segregated metropolitan area in America.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s prodigious manufacturing base eroded as auto companies shifted production to the suburbs, the rural Midwest, the anti-union South, and eventually overseas. A major producer of aircraft, cement, electronics, machine tools, pharmaceuticals and beer, Detroit was never a company town; there were few useful things it could not make. But its diverse industries were alike in their hostility to the city’s powerful unions, and they all followed the Big Three in seeking cheaper land and labor elsewhere. Factories were shutting down en masse by the end of the 1950s, taking with them the jobs black workers depended on, and a notorious culture of permanent pauperism set in. Today, even good times are hard times in Detroit: the unemployment rate exceeded 13 percent every year from 2003 through 2008, with a third of the city’s population living in poverty.

Suburban refugees saw this polarized landscape in racial and moral terms, contrasting their own decency and work ethic with the shiftlessness and criminality they perceived in Detroit proper. But deindustrialization and the collapse of organized labor have confounded Greater Detroit’s effort to distance itself from the inner city it despises and fears. Greater Detroit’s unemployment rate is now the highest of any large metro area in the country, and people throughout the region feel desperate: The cab driver who picked me up at the airport had just been laid off from a suburban parts factory and was thinking of going back to India, where prospects seemed brighter. The culture at large, meanwhile, is no longer able to distinguish between Detroit proper, the lair of the urban underclass, and Greater Detroit, home of the doomed blue-collar aristocracy, a class of social parasites bound for globalization’s guillotine.

page_0099-01The latest auto-industry collapse has turned this managerial critique of the UAW into populist folklore about $75-an-hour goldbrickers. (“Assbite UNIONS have bancrupted GM and the American auto industry for 75 years, but is that enough for the greedy bastards?? NO! They still want to fester and suck blood from GM/America and block GM reorganization out of self/greed,” ran a typical posting to an AOL article on the auto bailouts.) Like the inner-city underclass, suburban blue-collar workers and retirees now find themselves pilloried as selfish loafers dependent on welfare handouts that sap the nation’s vitality. The auto industry’s federal overseers have therefore decreed that the non-union Japanese-owned plants will set the bargaining pattern, and Detroit, Labor’s Bastille, has now become its Waterloo.The city was the site of labor’s greatest victories, climaxing in the Treaty of Detroit, the 1950 United Auto Workers contract that won cost-of-living adjustments along with lavish health and unemployment benefits, pensions and vacations. The settlement gave autoworkers a reliable middle-class standard of living and a secure retirement, with money to send the kids to college; it was a privatized, corporate version of the national social-insurance system that the UAW fought for unsuccessfully in Washington. Naturally, it made Detroit a leading target when the conservative counterattack against organized labor finally came. When oil shocks and Japanese competition crippled the auto industry in the Seventies, management theorists blamed its union workforce for the nation’s economic malaise. Autoworkers, they insisted, were unproductive, careless and hung-over. They cranked out defective cars and clung to petty work rules that stymied innovation. Their sky-high wages and costly benefits imposed a huge price disadvantage on the Big Three. Worst of all, they were uncooperative, self-willed and indifferent to the common good; unlike Japanese workers, they couldn’t see that the interests of management and labor were the same.

A final dimension of classical tragedy: Detroit was undone by the very car culture it created. Henry Ford, modern Detroit’s founding father, embodied the irony. Echoing a familiar strain of American anti-urbanism, Ford decried the industrial city as a “pestiferous growth” that rendered life artificial and made men strangers to each other. But unlike Jeffersonians past, he believed that technology would eradicate the disease. By conferring unlimited mobility, his cars would let people abandon the urban hellhole and live a wholesome rural life while participating in the industrial economy: “We shall solve the City Problem,” he wrote, “by eliminating the City.” His prophecy came true, catastrophically, for the city he built.

Detroit has a reputation for low-density sprawl, but at its 1950 zenith it was a real city. At 13,249 people per square mile, its population density was nearly twice that of present-day Seattle, and extensive trolley and bus lines made it surprisingly auto-independent. All that changed with the breakneck suburbanization of the Fifties. Leading the onslaught were the interstate highways whose construction, shortly after the trolleys shut down, obliterated whole neighborhoods. City planners turned a jaundiced Fordian eye on any remaining pockets of density and bustle. Much of the docks district was flattened to make way for a windswept riverfront civic center, and the city’s historic black ghetto and other ethnic neighborhoods were demolished for redevelopment schemes that often skipped the redevelopment. Long before the fires of ’67, urban prairie took root in the guise of urban renewal. But these holes in the city’s fabric did less harm than did gradual dissipation, as the city’s substance bled out over the interstates. The auto industry thrived on government subsidies for road-building and home construction in the new auto-dependent suburbs, but Detroit languished because of them. This was the infrastructure that let the city’s inhabitants and industry disperse into the exurban hinterland. Without it, Detroit’s population, economy and tax base might not have slipped its orbit, and whites, lacking easy escape routes, might have accommodated blacks’ demands for integration instead of sentencing them to a municipal quarantine zone.

Detroit fulfilled my father’s hopes for a while: He got his law degree at the University of Detroit, made partner at a top accounting firm and moved our family into one of the city’s best neighborhoods. But the upheavals that climaxed in the ’67 riots made the city a far less promising place than it had been in his youth. The crime was especially shocking, and did much to justify people’s decisions to flee. Poor blacks suffered more from it than did middle-class whites like us, but it touched everyone. A kid I knew well was set upon by a gang while he was riding his bike and beaten into a coma, and my family and I were robbed in our house by a gunman and his jittery girlfriend. By that time, Dad had left the city. His firm moved from downtown to the suburban business district springing up in the edge city of Southfield, and after he and my mother divorced he lived in nearby Bloomfield Township. He ended his days in a subdivision hewn from a cornfield, full of low ranch houses, wide lawns and spindly trees that gave no shade. It was safe, but it felt more desolate to me than any place in Detroit.

In the Seventies Detroit adopted the motto “Renaissance City,” and became a laboratory—and graveyard—for urban renewal fads. The Renaissance Center, a pharaonic hotel-office complex of banal glass-and-steel towers, hunkering behind fortress-like concrete berms that made it virtually unapproachable, didn’t spark a revival. The People Mover, a three-mile elevated light-rail loop, built as the downtown anchor for a commuter line that never materialized, shuttled its empty cars between vacant lots.

As remedies failed and failed again, Detroit became a case study in urban theory, one that dovetailed nicely with the anti-industrial thrust of New Economy propaganda. The city failed, urban theorists began to believe, because it never ascended from manufacturing to the finance-centered economy that rallied New York and London from their post-industrial slumps. These were “world-class cities”—a designation avidly sought by urban development officials, implying dematerialized wealth adorned by cultural prestige, celebrity architecture and the Olympics—and “world-class cities” were the only ones that would flourish in the global economy. Detroit, fixated on the false security of making stuff, would remain a backwater.

The current recession has shattered the financial sector, laid world-class cities low, and even moved government officials to extol manufacturing. And yet proponents of this critique only grow louder. Pondering “How the Crash Will Reshape America” in the March Atlantic, the influential urbanist Richard Florida again rings the death knell for Detroit-style industrial cities. The postmodern economy, he contends, “no longer revolves around simply making and moving things, “but around “generating and transporting ideas.” The future therefore belongs to “creative cities”—those that generate “the highest velocity of ideas” by luring the “creative class” of bankers and lawyers, scientists and engineers, fashion designers, film directors, artists and just plain “highly educated people.” Florida’s showcase is Pittsburgh, which ditched steel-making and re-oriented its economy around its universities, health-care industry and technology sector; he salutes it for “redeveloping its core to attract young professionals and creative types.” By this standard, Detroit, with a measly four Starbucks, is out of the running, and Florida expects it to become a “ghost town.” This is a matter of indifference to him. While he declares the fostering of “idea-driven creative industries” to be “one of the government’s biggest challenges,” the evaporation of the “tangible sector” is just nature taking its course, an inevitable outgrowth of “long-term trends . . . that look unlikely to abate” until we reach “The Last Crisis of the Factory Towns.”

Florida’s brand of urbanism yields few policy prescriptions, other than that “flexibility and mobility” should be prodded along by encouraging renting over homeownership. Worse, by disdaining all things industrial as stolid, stupid and stuck in the mud, his theory of urban economic succession gets the lesson of Detroit flat wrong. Making good cars requires plenty of innovation and, yes, creativity; rejecting the fallacy that it doesn’t is precisely what enabled Toyota to eat Detroit’s lunch. Nor is it obvious that the idea industries Florida touts are any more robust than manufacturing; indeed, what’s brilliant about Pittsburgh’s strategy is its targeting of sectors that receive massive and uncontroversial government subsidies. The real point of the Creative Cities model is the nifty way it rationalizes the privileges of what used to be called the upper class. Florida envisions an archipelago of world-class cities catering to well-heeled elites who are always ready to flock to more amusing perches; meanwhile, the making of things can be relegated to far-off sweatshops where workers make no demands on their creative betters. Detroit, the city where the working class once stood up to claim its slice of the pie, would be glaringly out of place.

Another influential school of thought insists that, instead of advancing into the post-industrial future, Detroit should regress into the pre-industrial past. The city’s prairies have made it a center of the urban farming movement, with hundreds of plots ranging from community vegetable gardens to a multi-acre spread that raises alfalfa, chickens and cattle. Movement leaders extol the city’s fertile soil, the fresh produce they supply to local food deserts (there isn’t a single major-chain grocery store in the whole city), and the spiritual “healing and regeneration” that comes from working the land. To a certain green-anarchist mindset that abhors Detroit’s industrial legacy, this is thrilling Progress. Surveying “Detroit Arcadia” in the July 2007 Harper’s, urban ruinist Rebecca Solnit trumpets the city’s “tender, hopeful and green” farmlet economy, illustrated with a photo of a shovel-wielding peasant, as “the shining example . . . the post-industrial green city that was once the steel-gray capital of Fordist manufacturing.” Detroit now points the way out of “the transnational webs of corporations and petroleum” and into “the future, at least the sustainable one, the one in which we will survive,” she writes, skating around the massive die-off that would have to occur before the city’s land area could feed its population.

Solnit’s dream may be coming true, but only with the thoroughly corporate help of the Hantz Group, a Southfield-based financial-services company that announced plans last April for a huge commercial farm in Detroit. Starting with a 70-acre tract on the East Side, Hantz Farms LLC hoped to buy up 10,000 acres of allegedly underutilized land—a tenth of the city—for vegetable, fruit and Christmas tree farms, a cider mill, maybe a wind farm. The company vowed to “clear away the garbage, the blight, the debris,” produce “local and natural food” along with hundreds of jobs, and “reintroduce Detroiters to the beauty of nature.” City officials promised CEO John Hantz swift action on the proposal, which was applauded by the Detroit News and urban farming advocates.

It’s hard to see Hantz’s folly competing with the factory farms of the real prairie; one imagines its main harvest will be tax write-offs and agribusiness subsidies. That Hantz could propose leveling a sizeable stretch of a major American city and turning it into a Christmas tree plantation, and then be hailed as a green visionary instead of being run out of town on a rail, shows how desperately Detroit needs straws to grasp at. His is actually one of the sunnier versions of the “shrink Detroit” proposals now floating around, which call for sacrificing blighted neighborhoods in order to concentrate city resources on healthier ones. One downsizing scheme showcased in the Free Press would bulldoze neighborhoods and relocate their inhabitants to a patchwork of “urban villages” separated by belts of woodland and pasture where houses once stood. Harder-eyed approaches would simply withdraw city services from the sacrifice zones and leave hangers-on in a Hobbesian state of nature.


These plans draw on the trendy doctrines of the international Shrinking Cities movement. Shrinkage theory holds that a dwindling population cannot afford the municipal services necessary to sustain a city built for a larger population; they should therefore contract into a smaller footprint that’s cheaper to maintain. The result is compact settlement surrounded by parks or farms—a denser urb that’s greener, to boot. But as rational as all this sounds, it hangs on a grotesque misunderstanding of Detroit’s predicament. Despite its ghost-town image, Detroit’s population density is still actually rather high by American standards. The city is half again as dense as Portland, Oregon, substantially denser than the booming Sunbelt cities of Phoenix, Houston and Dallas, denser even than Pittsburgh—all of them places that adequately fund city services. Detroit’s problem is not underpopulation, but brute poverty, something that the grossly overstated efficiencies of shrinkage won’t alleviate. (Flint, Michigan, a shrinkage poster-city held up as a role model for Detroit, anticipates saving all of $100,000 on garbage pickup in the neighborhoods slated for destruction.) And for all its anti-sprawl rhetoric, shrinkism is extravagantly wasteful from the larger perspective of metropolitan land use. It hollows out the dense core of metro-area settlement under the assumption—the ugly, unstated postulate of shrinkage—that decent people can’t be enticed to live there. As city districts are razed and emptied, development is shunted, as usual, to cornfields on the exurban frontier, where people drive everywhere and nowhere—that’s the green part of the equation.

The most ass-backward renewal gimmicks yet, shrinkage and farming simply restate the formula for racially driven sprawl that wrecked Detroit, only this time in the jargon of environmentalism and, God help us, urbanism. Meanwhile, the Chinese, with their curious notion that development means moving up from peasant agriculture to manufacturing, are building a dozen Detroits, which will make all the products Hantz’s employees can afford on their field-hands’ wages.

Like many Detroiters, my friend Scott, a labor lawyer who lives downtown, considers the Death of Detroit an annoying cliché, so he insists that our ruins tour also be a signs-of-life tour. We drive through the East Side, past the enormous Briggs works, now home to a flea market, and the rambling shell of the Packard factory, vacant except for a man sitting in an easy chair by its cavernous entrance. The once busy commercial artery of Mack Avenue is now flanked mainly by small fields; every block on the side streets has at least a handful of derelict houses. But there’s also Indian Village, still a gorgeous district of well-tended mansions, and Mexican Town, a growing neighborhood with the lively street life all Detroit used to have. Brush Park, the city’s posh district after the Civil War, is a lurid standoff pitting new townhouses and spiffily rehabbed Victorian mansions against charred ruins and prairie; I can’t tell whether it’s dying or being reborn.

North past the Highland Park Model T factory, the decay deepens. On Robinwood between John R and Woodward, reputedly the city’s worst blocks, every house is empty except for the brightly colored heaps of trash vomited through their doorways into the weeds. Even Scott’s optimism flags; the street feels sinister and slightly deranged, and it seems like there is nothing to do except to raze it and let the prairie in. Just a few blocks away, across the moat of Woodward Avenue, we cruise through the unbelievably luxurious neighborhood of Palmer Woods. Built during the auto boom when Detroit was probably the richest place in the world, it has winding streets with Tudor palaces and French chateaux set on rolling lawns. But even here we find a derelict property, said by neighbors to be Mitt Romney’s boyhood home.

Finally we head south across Seven Mile to our old neighborhood. Not quite as grand as Palmer Woods, it has solid four-bedroom houses set near each other on quarter-acre lots. It’s a close-knit neighborhood; when I was very young, in the pressure wave of the baby boom, just about every family had four or five kids, and as we ranged through our leafy backyards we merged into an autonomous republic of children that our mothers were powerless to police. I was last here when my mother moved out in 2002, when it had transitioned into a community of black professionals and was doing fine. As we pull up, my old house looks better than ever: newly landscaped, with a couple of kids playing basketball by the garage like my brothers and I used to. But the stately brick colonial next door is half burned and boarded up, hung with a banner painted with staring eyes that warn scavengers and drug dealers that the house is being watched. The family that had lived there wanted to rebuild, but the house was uninsured; the neighborhood association was taking up a collection.

A Martian developer landing in the metro area would immediately peg inner-city Detroit as the place to build. Unlike a cornfield, it’s ready to support housing and businesses with a transportation grid, utilities, and municipal services. The prairie is not actually a prairie, just vacant lots ready to be built upon. With peak oil coming, bus transit on the broad avenues could be whistled up on the cheap. Detroit has architecture and atmosphere and a lovely riverfront, and people ought to flock there. No law of nature prevents it from recovering its lost million, and making the little battery-operated cars we should be driving, or something else, and being the great city it once was. That this potential seems unrealizable, that hard-headed analysts dismiss it as nostalgic fantasy, that our leaders can think of nothing better to do with the Renaissance City than to plow it under, is a crime.

Every house is empty except for the brightly colored heaps of trash vomited through their doorways into the weeds.

Centuries ago, humanists in Europe’s Renaissance cities also pondered a legacy of ruins from the distant past, but they did not gaze on them with romantic melancholy or shake their heads at the Ozymandian hubris of it all. They saw in the ruins of antiquity an inspiration and a challenge, great feats of human ingenuity to be emulated and surpassed. Detroit’s ruins attest to its failures, to an industrial democracy fatally undermined by its refusal to include everyone, and a heedless material culture that, unless drastically reformed, imperils the planet. But they also speak of titanic achievements by whose standard we might usefully judge the present: prosperity widely shared; a working class that acted as master of its fate rather than as a dull-witted tool of production; a readiness to remake the world for the benefit of ordinary people, rather than bowing to the pseudo-natural order of the market economy. Instead of accepting the city’s challenge, we have abandoned it, imagining that we can thereby leave behind poverty and decay—and even materiality itself, with all its defects—and so escape the burden of remediation and repair these things impose on us.

But it’s not so easy to leave Detroit behind. I went to Chicago for college, and eventually to New York to be a writer—to join the creative economy in the pre-eminent world-class city. I succeeded, sort of; I’m a hack book reviewer, paid a pittance in an industry that’s collapsing faster than GM. My situation is precarious, and every day I am reminded that, to live, I need things, not just ideas. The ads for writing jobs on Craigslist are all looking for bloggers to post about trendy nightlife spots, which I can’t do because I have nothing to say about nightlife, and because I’m too old to even be allowed into anyplace trendy, but mostly because blogging pays nothing at all unless you are world-class, and I am not world-class. Working in an auto factory for union wages doesn’t sound half bad right now, but jobs are hard to come by in Detroit these days.